Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Looks Like We Made It

Well, we made it.  We actually arrived on Saturday around 5pm EST, but after three days on the road, I figured I'd take a few days to decompress.  They say when you travel to different time zones, it takes your body one day for each hour of change to adjust your internal time clock.  With the a road trip with three young kids, I think it's one day for each 8+ hour day of driving, no matter if you change time zones or not.  Overall, the 26 hours of car time over three days when about as well as it could have.  We had our fair share of meltdowns, but considering the circumstances, nothing significantly deviant from our statistical average.  That trend seems to be holding steady over the past few days.

We actually got a bit of relieved news the morning we departed.  Early on in our plans for this potential warm weather getaway, we thought we had secured a great accommodation at a ridiculous price.  It turned out to be too good to be true, and we discovered it was a vacation rental scam.  Unfortunately we found this out after we made the payment for the rental.  Luckily, we paid through PayPal and used our credit card, so we were pretty certain we would be fully refunded.  We found out the morning that we left that would indeed be the case and were definitely relieved to have that situation over with.  But it just goes to prove the notion that you should trust your instinct, which we didn't at first.

I wouldn't say things took a complete nose-dive after that bit of welcome news, but there was definitely ups and downs.  Timing was a a key component through the entire trip, and I would say we got pretty lucky.  Gus was the wild card, and he rode pretty well.  Consistent if nothing else.  We'd stop when he needed to eat and hit the road shortly after he was finished.  It was getting the other two to adhere to his schedule that was a little more of a challenge.  Luckily, our van came equipped with a DVD player (a feature I was adamant about excluding from our purchase), which was definitely as saving grace.  We didn't tell the girls about it prior to the trip and we were able to make it until hour six of driving on Day 1 before busting it out.  I thought we could possibly keep it in our back pocket until at least Day 2, but the card was played at the appropriate time.  We also became frequent users of mall play areas/food courts for both caloric expenditure and intake.  When we finally crossed the Florida state line, we made a beeline for the first outdoor playground we could find, despite the fact it was only just above 50 degrees and our kids were wearing sandals and t-shirts.  Probably the reason they've both had runny-noses the last few days.

I think our first rest-stop of the trip was a microsom for how things unfolded.  We stopped at a Burger King about 2.5 hours in for lunch.  I try to avoid fast food whenever possible because I'm a pretentious, liberal yuppy, but it had a "playplace" and would give me my first opportunity in about seven years enjoy a Whopper (I used frequent the BK a couple of blocks from my apartment in grad school because I got coupons in the mail.  I was still a liberal yuppy at the time, I just lacked any disposable income or spousal support to allow me to be pretentious).  The playplace was empty and the order line was short when we arrived, so we thought we timed it perfectly.  Jess could nurse Guthrie while Isla and Havi wore themselves out on the maze-like structure of steps, tunnels and slides.  I could enjoy my Whopper the way I like it; hold the pickles, hold the tomato, and in relative peace.

Twenty minutes in, we attempted to coax the girls down to eat their BK-equivalent Happy Meals and Havi was reluctant to come down.  Through a series of yes-no question and answer, and interpretation by Isla (because 4 year olds can apparently understand 2 year old language better than adults) we found out that Havi had peed through her pull-up and left a small puddle of urine at the top of one of the slides.  This forced Jess to go on a reconnaissance mission up through the adult-unfriendly structure (no chance in hell I would have been able to fit) to asses the damage and retrieve Havi.  Luckily, the damage was limited and Havi managed to miraculously avoid getting any on her pants, or at least not even to warrant an outfit change.  Over the years, I've begun to notice the unfortunate things that will sometimes happen to kids at seemingly fortunate times for parents.  Like when you're at the playground and your kids are adamantly opposed to your decision to leave until one of them falls off the monkey bars and runs to you in tears.  Check please.

During our road trip, I couldn't help but think about the changing nature of road trips over the years.  In college, I drove with some buddies overnight to get to Montana, only to spend most of the next day sleeping.  On our honeymoon, Jess and I spent most of our drive through Nebraska with a portable DVD player set-up on the dash of our car so we could watch movies.  When I was a teenager, I rode on a mattress in a topper-covered truck bed on a 10+ hour drive to the Black Hills.  That would never fly today, especially with small children. Granted Jess made her fair share of crawls over her seat to retrieve a dropped item or get a snack for the girls.  But I've also heard stories about moms who would nurse their young children in the car while it was in motion.  Of course that was a different time.  I'm just glad we have no leather in our vehicle and the girls didn't have access to any crayons which could have been strategically placed so the sun would bake them into the seat - a childhood pastime for my sister and me.

When we finally arrived at our destination, we were overjoyed on a number of levels.  We were obviously glad to be able to get out of the vehicle for good, but we were also glad to see a house.  The place we are staying at was apparently built within the last year, which means when you dial up the address on Google maps all you see is an empty lot.  Given our track record for finding places to rent for this trip that actually exist, this was a little unsettling.  We were even more ecstatic when the code they gave us to open the front door worked.  Then I was a little worried.  The house is new, and nice.  A little too nice.  Especially for a family with kids under five.  When we got there, the last thing I really wanted to do was plop the girls in front of the TV, but that was exactly what I did as I went around the house and moved everything that looked at least remotely breakable out of reach from their dirty, slippery little hands.  The only thing I was not able to move was the full wine chiller (expensive, foreign stuff I'm sure), but that is locked and seems sturdy enough.  Havi has taken a fascination in it, but so far hasn't attempted to aggressively get after any of its contents.  If the next few weeks get out of hand, I may have to treat that like a fire extinguisher in a public place (break glass in case of emergency).  Despite our best attempts at kid-proofing, I'm more or less bracing for our refundable damage deposit not being refunded.

Now that we're here we are trying to balance our time relaxing around the house and taking in some of the sights/beaches of the area.  Since we're here for a little while, we figure we don't have to do everything right away, and we'll eventually get into some sort of a routine to structure our days.  So far, the only real routine I've gotten into is a least one large glass of wine each night, sometimes two.  It will be hard not to fall into vacation slothness though with the sun out and a private pool and patio out your backdoor.  It beckons you to relax on a lawn chair and enjoy a cold beverage, which I'm doing at this very moment (1:32 EST on a Wednesday, at least it's after lunch).  I suppose this is what retired life is all about, minus the kids who wake up too early in the morning (and one who wakes up multiple times at night).  We did sit down for dinner last night at about 4:53.  

You will have to excuse any typos or grammatical errors, and likely some brevity in any posts over the next few weeks.  I'm not too good with the computer.  I'm actually typing this on a tablet which will likely give me carpal tunnel by the end of the trip.  That was just my best "retired person-esque" justification. No offense to any of you who might be retired.  I just can't see how people can actually type on these things.  I may revert to longhand writing and just post a picture of what I write.  That probably wouldn't work either though, my penmanship is essentially illegible (one of my good friends actually used to chide me for my half-assed pencil erasing effort).

Well, the sun is out, and the temp is almost 70, so I should probably hop in the pool to cool off.  I think it's time for water aerobics.

We violated a number of these rules.  Especially #6.

My method of keeping Havi's hands out of the toilet at a rest stop bathroom - pose with the caution sign.   Luckily yellow is her favorite color, so the enthusiasm is sincere.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Year of Do Learning Activity #1 - Go Native

When I decided to leave my job last fall, a lot of jokes were made, by myself included, that I was retiring.  My last day of work actually happened to fall on Halloween, so for my costume I actually went as "retired" - replete with a floral shirt, a putter, and a Bloody Mary.  While I'm not drawing on my Social Security yet, my day to day activities may sometimes resemble that of a retired person - ambling through grocery store aisles at 10am on a weekday morning, trying all of the free samples.

I've decided, well, we've decided to stay consistent with this year's theme (see 1/11/15 post) and really get into the spirit.  Tomorrow morning, we're going to make like snowbirds and head to Cape Coral, Florida, despite our nest being very far from empty.  This idea actually came about from Jess around the midpoint of her pregnancy with Guthrie.  Recognizing that this might be the only extended time that our entire family would have limit commitments to school and work, she suggested we consider heading some place warm for a few weeks in attempt to circumvent us killing each other all being home together at the same time.  Me, always up for an adventure, was quick to oblige.  Why would we stay in frigid Minnesota in the winter, all cooped up in the house together.

So bright and early, or whenever we can load up all of our crap, and the kids of course, we'll hit the road.  Our hope is to pack a 26 hour trip into three manageable days of driving.  We figure we'll be able to get about 2-3 hours at a pop before Gus needs to eat or someone needs to pee.  It will be slow going, but we're in no hurry.  We've got snacks and games, DVDs and music.  It will be great family bonding time.  Once we get to Florida, we'll have just under three weeks to enjoy warmer climates and the friendly confines of some congenial Germans' vacation home.  Not the full snowbird effect, but I'm sure we'll be hitting up our fair share of "Early Bird Specials".

I wouldn't go so far as calling this a vacation though.  We'll still have the day to day "opportunities" that we always have.  In fact, they'll probably be amplified a few notches and come more frequently since we'll be in a different environment and likely on a different schedule, definitely while on the road.  The upside is that we'll be able to address these "opportunities" in flip-flops and bermuda shorts, which will be a nice change of pace.  Jess and I agreed the other day, when it's all said and done, we'll be glad that we did this and probably never want to do something like it again.  I'm excited to go, but not excited in the way I was when Jess and I went to Hawaii last year.  I'm just ready to get somewhere we can be outside with out three or more layers on.  Yesterday, the kids and I spent a better part of the morning riding their bikes in a circle in the garage with a space heater on full blast.

I also wouldn't say that we can really afford to do this, financially that is.  We've made a decent amount of financially suspect decisions over the last few years (especially since buying our house), and this will definitely rank up there.  Keep in mind I'm currently not drawing any income, and Jess is cobbling together sick leave, borrowed sick leave, and vacation to get paid for about half of her maternity leave.  We also don't have any acquaintances in warmer climates that would be able to provide us free lodging (besides Ecuador, which is just shy of impossible to get to with small children).  Not that I would expect anyone to willingly welcome our brood into their peaceful, beach getaway.  But this will really be our only opportunity to engage in such tomfoolery, and the kids are super excited, so we wouldn't want to disappoint them.*  There is an extra bedroom available for sublet if you wanted to escape the cold weather for a little while and come stay with us.  I can't say that it will be really relaxing, but we'll give you a great deal.

I'll try to update along the way, and once we get there, because I'm almost certain there will be some good material that stems from this.  YOLO, right?

*Tonight as we were getting ready for bed, Isla and Havi were having some epic meltdowns, which caused me to nix our standard book reading.  Between sobs, Isla looked at me with tear-filled eyes and asked, "But can we still go to Florida?"  Damn near broke my heart.  I obviously responded with, "If you say the magic words" (see 12/8/14 post).      

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Smile Like You Mean It

"Say Cheese"

Last weekend we participated in what most all upper middle class families with young kids engage in shortly after having a new baby.  Newborn pictures.  I sometimes wonder what sort of narcissistic creatures we are creating by giving kids less than two weeks old their very own, usually expensive, photo shoots.  And the fact that often times they are very scantily clad, if not entirely in the buff.  Good thing they typically sleep through the entire process, or cry, which hopefully traumatizes the memory.  Better thing that they don't remember much, if anything, from their first year alive.

Since this was our third newborn photo session experience, we knew what to expect.  Hopefully Guthrie would sleep, but odds are he would cry and need to be consoled (it turned out to be more of the later).  We'd taken newborn photos with older siblings before, so we also knew that our ability to get cooperative siblings is also a mere crapshoot.  Bribes, empty threats.  More bribes, more empty threats.  It's effective parenting at its finest.  Keep in mind the bribes and empty threats don't work with a newborn.  They can't understand the nuances of negotiation.  You also can't withhold the one thing they want, the boob.  It's bad form, and very negligent.  

Taking professional newborn photos, like taking any type of professional photos; wedding, engagement, family, are always exercises in sheer irrationality.  "Just pretend we're not here" is the instruction you get from the photographers.  "Act natural.  Be into each other."  Yes, that makes complete sense because if I was acting natural, I would obviously be lounging on this shag rug with one knee up and my arm draped over it.  It's the position I spend about 80% of my day in - even sometimes when I sleep.

With newborn photos, the cutest poses are what we'll refer to as "naked baby".  This obviously means the subject is not wearing any clothes, not even a diaper (the contract we received from our photographer actually stipulated "no diaper lines").  This means there is a 100% chance that baby is going to void (medical terminology for pooping and peeing) on you or that wrap you purchased specifically for the photoshoot.  When we took Havi's newborn photos, Havi crapped directly into Jess' hand mid-shutter release.  It was actually pretty impressive.   

Ah, but the memories from the created poses are priceless, right?  If you would have described your newborn photo-session as a "relaxed" experience, tell what you were taking.  My wife's a pharmacist and she can maybe get some samples.  The newborn photoshoot experience has brought to mind two reflections/concepts/ruminations/topics of discussion, whatever you want to call it.

1. Your Kid is the Cutest Kid Ever

I used to become mildly annoyed (and still sometimes do) when parents are over the top about how cute their kids are.  Especially when they aren't cute at all.  But then I actually thought about this premise, and realized that this actually makes sense, and I'm actually glad it is this way.  Think about it, your kid is the offspring of you and hopefully your spouse, partner, soul mate, etc.  Their DNA is a replication of your DNA, and I hope that you think you, and hopefully your counterpoint, are the most beautiful people in the world.  In a humble way, of course.  

I really hope that you can look in the mirror and consider yourself beautiful, both inside and out.  If that is not the case, then I think you need to ask yourself why that isn't the case, and what you can do to make that the case.  If you are in a relationship with your children's other parent, at any level, I hope that you can look at them and see the other most beautiful person in the world.  Again, if you can't, ask yourself why not and what you can do, and what they can do, to make that the case.

So that is why I hope you think your kids are cute, because they are you.  But please exercise caution when expressing this to the greater public.  To quote Aloe Blacc, "you can tell the whole world and everybody", but recognize that everyone else hopefully feels the same way you do, but about their own kids.  They might humor you a few times, but don't push your luck.  For the record, I have the cutest kids on the planet, because they are my wife's.   

2. Parent Like No One Is Watching/Parent Like Someone is Always Watching

I'm sure most all of us parent at least a little bit differently in private than we do in public.  I thought about this the other day while I was interacting with my 2 year-old while we were out and about.  I'm guessing anyone reading this does not have the issue of paparazzi precipitously snapping photos of them anytime they go out in public.  People does not publish photos of me engaging in normal day antics, like going to the grocery store with my kids.  Still, when you are out in public, especially if there are other parents and young kids around, you become acutely aware of your behavior.  I do this too.  When I parent in public, I like to speak to my kids in Spanish (or the little I know), so people think my kids are bilingual kid geniuses.  When I parent in private, I let them eat candy and watch excessive amounts of TV so I can hurriedly finish these blogs posts.

There is saying on a plaque somewhere at the dance studio that my 4 year old goes to on Wednesday nights that says "Dance Like No Watch Is Watching" (okay, I've actually never seen it there, but I'm sure it has to be there.  It's a dance studio after all).  The notion of the quote is that when we dance, we shouldn't care what others around think, as long as our hearts are in the right place and the music is moving us.  I do this a lot, to my wife's annoyance.  I thought the same could be applied to parenting.  Love your kids like no one is watching.  Do what your heart feels is right when interacting with your kids.  You should parent for the respect and love of your kids, not the admiration of other parents.

But then I thought about that a little more, and thought maybe we should parent like someone is always watching (I guess you could say the big men upstairs are always watching, God and Santa Claus).  At a certain level, I would say I'm probably a better parent when I parent in public because I'm more actively thinking about parenting.  There is a solid chance that no one is even paying attention to what I'm doing with my kids, but by just having other people around it makes me more conscious of my actions.  I've often quipped that sometimes it's easier to parent without my wife around, because then I don't have to worry about what sort of judgement she might be passing about my parenting methods.  Maybe when it comes to parenting we should be worried about what judgement might be passed, these are the most formative years of their lives after all.

I think the key lies in striking a balance between the two notions.  Strive to be the parent you want to be, so your actions are the same whether no one else is watching or you're on the Jumbotron at a professional sporting event.  And recognize that this will take work, but the more you work at it the more it will become second nature.  Studies have shown that if we engage in what we believe to be ethical behavior just because we think someone is watching, eventually that behavior will become more routine.  Even if you are doing it for show at first, the longer you do it, the more it will become habit.  Personally, I believe the only people I need to justify my parenting decision to are my wife and my kids.  If I can't justify it to them, then I need to "change (my) ways, while (I'm) young".  Or, middle aged.             

Like I said, cutest kids ever.
Photo courtesy of Emily Williams Photography


Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015 - The Year of Do

So this is the New Year, and I don't feel any different.

We're just over a week into the New Year, which means most of us have already abandoned our New Year's Resolutions, if we made them at all.  I heard a non-proven statistic that 88% of New Year's Resolutions fail, most in the first month.  That has to be pretty close to accurate.

I've never been one to make New Year resolutions.  Instead, I like to theme my upcoming year.  Last year I deemed the "Year of Frugality".  For this, Jess and I took a 10 day vacation to Hawaii, completed a couple of sizable, "necessary" house projects, purchased a new van, yes a van, and I quit my job.  Seems about right.  But it's a New Year and time for a fresh start.

This year I've themed 2015 "The Year of Do".  Now, that can be somewhat ambiguous as it can mean a whole host of things.  It can mean do good, like volunteer or pay it forward for strangers.  It can mean do nothing, and sit around all day.  For my scientific purposes, it will refer to doing stuff, stuff that I want to do.  Yes, that is still somewhat ambiguous, as maybe I want to sit around all day doing nothing.  Let me explain through a parable.

In the summer of 2009, I had the chance to head with a few buddies on a road trip to Chicago for a long weekend.  The Minnesota Twins were playing the Cubs in interleague play at historic Wrigley Field, and we had tickets to the Friday afternoon game.  We also had a friend who lived in Chicago we could crash with for a few nights.  The plan was to hit up the baseball game on Friday and spend the rest of the weekend taking in the sites and sounds of the city.  We took off on a Thursday afternoon and made the 7 hour trip from the Twin Cities, stopping in Eau Claire for ice cream.

Before we left, one of the guys, let's call him "MRF", sent out an email to some of his work contacts in the Chicago area to see if anyone had any leads on tickets to the Saturday afternoon Twins-Cubs game.  It was 2009, so smartphones were still relatively new to the world of tech.  At the time MRF, who works in advertising and is pretty media savvy, was wielding a flip phone.  Probably a Sanyo.  To our amazement and humor, this phone essentially became our key to the city for the weekend.  Coincidentally, MRF and his wife Melissa welcomed their first baby, a boy named Fitz, a day before Gus arrived.  Maybe they'll be able to recreate this trip in 26 years.

Our long weekend started off with a perfect Friday summer afternoon at the ballpark, which included a Twins win and cynical admiration of a mock turtleneck.  At some point during the post game festivities, the flip phone informed MRF that one of his contacts had some extra tickets for the Saturday afternoon game.  The only catch was we had to meet up with them prior to the game for brunch to pick up the tickets.  So we did, and after forcing ourselves to get up bright and early, we allowed them to buy us drinks and brunch.  We then enjoyed another Twins win from complimentary seats 20 rows up behind the visitors dugout.

During the game, more communications transmitted to the flip phone.  Would we be interested in stopping by a high rise condo downtown for some drinks?  Sure, why not.  After milling about in Grant Park, and getting a courtesy shave compliments of Gillette, we rode the elevator to the 33rd floor of a downtown condo building to admire the skyline views from floor to ceiling windows.  On our way back down we stopped by the building patio to play a couple games of bag toss whilst being treated to hot dogs and popcorn provided by the gracious condo association managers.  That night ended the only way it could, with one of our compatriots, let's call him "Snead", crooning "Piano Man" at a karaoke bar while the rest of us encouraged others to join in the longstanding Johnnie tradition.  Failed attempts were made to order delivery from Gary's Pizza.

While this story is probably only enjoyable to the six of us who experienced it first hand, there is a broader message that prevails and pertains to my 2015 theme.  During that trip, we found ourselves in some unbelievably incredible situations because we accepted some seemingly spontaneous invitations.  Offers were made, and we accepted, and we had a great time.  Coming back from that trip, I made a note to start taking people up on their offers, and see what adventure might await.

Remember the last time you ran into somebody you hadn't seen in a while or met someone new, and one of you offhandedly made the comment that you should get together sometime; maybe for coffee or drinks, or a friendly game of Foosball.  We all have these encounters, and our invitation for additional interaction is a mere cordiality that we feel the need to extend, while both knowing there is really no way it will ever happen.  I've been guilty of this before, many of times.  You get to an awkward ending of a conversation, and naturally, we go for; "hey, we should get together sometime."  The response is usually, "yeah, we totally should."  End scene.  You may run into that person in six weeks, or six months or six years and have that conversation again verbatim.

After that weekend in Chicago, I wanted to put that conversation to task, and I want to do it again this year.  When someone says we should get together, or do something, I'm going to say, "alright, when are we doing it" and actually get it on the books.  Sure, it might seem a little bizarre at first, and those initial encounters might be awkward and some will end up being total flops.  But you might just have a great time, one that you'll recount five years later.  You'll never know until you put yourself out there.

Now there must be limits, and you obviously can't say "yes" to everything.  You have to weigh your options, time & financial commitments, and of course your personal safety.  Odds are it won't be like taking a Bud Light from a stranger and ending up play ping pong with Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I actually would suggest that you exercise extreme caution when any random person offers you a drink and asks if you're "up for whatever happens next".  Be smart and think about the long game.  Don't channel your inner Peter Gibbons on a random workday morning just because you want some spontaneity in your life.  Or do if you've been meaning to give that job double-barrels for a while.

The flip side to this would be, when someone tosses out that halfhearted invitation and it's not actually something you're interested in being a part of, just be frank and decline.  The last book I read was called The Year of Living Biblically, and it was about a guy who tries to follow the words of the Bible as literally as possible.  In the book he quotes a Bible verse about frankness, and channels it into an encounter he has when out with his wife.  His wife runs into an old college friend, and after making chit-chat, the friend suggests that their families should get together sometime for a playdate.  The author, following the good book, says "thanks, but no thanks", since he really has no interest in the suggestion.  His wife was obviously furious with him, but he recounts feeling surprisingly liberated.  Side note, I'd add this book to my recommendations of parental reads as the author has a young son and his wife delivers twins when he is completing his year.  It's got some good commentary about parenting and religious belief.
I'm a list maker.  I like to make lists so I can complete things and check those items off the list.  My bucket list is an ever evolving list that started as 30 things to do before I was 30 and has now morphed into 40 things to do before I'm 40.  I've only completed about a third of it, and still have a few empty spots that need to be filled in if you have any suggestions.  I've scribbled things out that I don't want to do anymore and added things that I now want to do as my life has changed.  For me, writing things down helps me stay focused.

I've started to make a list of things I want to do with my kids too.  Some of these are long-term goals (family bike across the States), some are things I'd like to do this summer (camp), or even next week (dress up tea party).  While doing something always requires more work than doing nothing, especially when small children are involved, I've found that magic moments with your kids don't just appear out of nowhere.  You have to put in some effort.  And despite that effort, it might end up being a big bust anyway.  I have realized that the more time I spend with my kids, the more opportunities I'm going to have for parenting fails.

Case in point a couple of months ago.  I was about two weeks into staying home with the kids.  We had been cooped up inside for the better part of that time thanks to some unseasonable cold (if such a thing exists in Minnesota).  Determined for us to spend some time outdoors, I bundled up the kids to take them on a hiking adventure over at the Saint John's Arboretum.  When we arrived at our destination, we were greeted with 25 mph winds from the Northwest, which brought the balmy 20 degrees down to a less than pleasant -5.  We were outside for about 2.5 minutes before I ordered everyone back in the van, and we returned home defeated.

What I recognized that day was that despite my intentions of planning an Instagram worthy family experience, not all of our adventures will be epic.  In fact, the more adventures we have, the greater percentage of those will be fails, it's really simple math.  But if we never try for those epic memorable moments, then we'll obviously never have them.  On our Chicago trip in 2009, we just got really lucky with an overabundance of Instagram worthy moments.  Too bad it didn't launch until 2010.            

So if you really want to do something, do it, and make an idiot of yourself in the process if you need/want to (JHJ, if you're reading this, book that damn flight to Ireland already!).  It might seem like a lot of work, you'll definitely will be pushing your comfort level, and it might end up being a bust anyway.  But at least you tried.  You made the effort, and you can't fault yourself for that.  Don't live vicariously through others.  Live vicariously through yourself.    

With the right resources and the right people,
you can do just about anything.

Parenting Fail?  Yeah, maybe.
Havi didn't seem to mind though.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Married With Children

Last Friday, Jess and I celebrated six years of holy matrimony.  I was hoping to get this post up that day in her honor (anniversary gift), but we were a little busy that night - watching How To Train Your Dragon with the kids, enjoying very weak Captain Morgan cocktails, and secretly sharing some Reese's Pieces.  I think we held hands a couple of times, when we both ended up putting our hand in the candy bag at the same time.  Steamy stuff.

In six years we've covered a lot of ground - relocated, got (and quit in my case) new jobs, bought a house, and now produced a total of three adorable offspring.  We're essentially living the American dream.  It's been a long time coming though.  Some of you know that we dated for just tad short of a decade before she finally agreed to marry me out of sympathy.  Or something like that.  We've now figured out that we've been together for more years in our life than we've been apart.

In reality, my approach to marriage was not that much unlike my approach to having kids.  Jess likes to recount how I told her relatively early on in our relationship (probably back before she had her driver's license) that my plan was to be a bachelor into my thirties, a rich workaholic with no time for a wife or kids.  As much as I attempted to convince myself that this was going to be the case, I figured, eventually I'd get married like most people do.

My parents split when I was 11.  From my recollection, it was pretty amicable.  Sure there were arguments and tears, and lots of questions, but I think my parents did a great job of ensuring my sister and I that the things they needed to work through were in no way related to us.  It was a realization that they were not meant to be together, and they would ultimately be happier if they separated.  While no one probably ever wishes that their parents would divorce, I'm glad they had the courage to examine their feelings and do what they felt was in the best interest of everyone in involved.  It sounds weird, but I'm happy they didn't just stay together for the kids.

Their separation played an interesting role in my own personal view of relationships, and ultimately marriage.  One thing I knew was that if and when I did get married, I wanted to make absolutely sure it was going to be a forever commitment.  This had both pros and cons.  On one hand, I was going to be cautious with my relationships and make sure I didn't jump into anything too quickly.  On the other hand, it often times left me second guessing myself, pondering if there was something, or someone else, better out there.

The story of how my wife and I became a couple is pretty humorous, and also pretty personal, so I won't get into the details.  I'll just abbreviate it by saying that when we started dating, I definitely wasn't thinking about committing for the long haul.  We were also 16 and not on 19 Kids and Counting, so marriage wasn't much on our mind at that time.  But as we grew older, our relationship progressed and developed into something more serious.  We weathered young adult milestones together - we went to different colleges, then the same colleges, and then different colleges again.  We survived summers working side by side and a semester on separate continents.  I had some moments of idiotic insecurity in believing that I no longer wanted to be in a serious relationship, namely my first and last years of undergrad.  Luckily when I came to my senses, she always welcomed me back and forgave my stupidity.  When I realized that she wasn't going to wait around forever for me, I figured I'd better propose before she ran away with a rich and handsome doctor.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.

When I found out that were were going to have kids, I told myself that I would never lose my own identity through the chaos of parenthood.  I wanted to retain a certain level of my individuality so that when my kids finally left the nest, I'd still be able to function as a productive member of society.  I want to live for my kids, but I don't want my kids to be my entire life.  This has already taken some significant effort, and will only get more challenging as they grow.  Over the years I found, just as important and probably more challenging, is retaining your marriage/relationship with your spouse/partner through parenthood.

Having kids takes a toll on your marriage.  Not surprising that a study done last year showed that childless couples are happier than couples with children.  Another study showed that happiness levels peak with your first child and decline with all subsequent children.  This concept is also the premise for Jennifer Senior's book All Joy and No Fun, a great read if you are a parent of young children or expecting to become one soon.  It's inevitable that having kids changes the dynamic of your relationship with your spouse or partner.  You even start referencing each other in different ways, using "mom" and "dad" because that is the language you use around your kids.

Something that struck me about parenthood was that a lot of my non-sexual intimacy; holding hands, cuddling, giving hugs, etc. was now being shared with my kids instead of my wife.  As we've added to the brood, the time we've had to nurture our relationship has obviously dwindled.  I'm also not one of those people who has a "thing" for pregnant women, so my displays of public affection toward my wife during her pregnancies were pretty pitiful.  Toward the end of her second pregnancy when she was probably at her most uncomfortable, I distinctly remember looking at my wife and flatly saying, "Oh yeah, I forgot you were still pregnant."  She refrained from punching me in the face, which would have been absurdly justifiable.  Hopefully she at least considered it.

Fortunately, one of the perks of me no longer working outside the home is that I feel like I've had more time to consciously put more effort into our relationship.  I no longer unnecessarily take out frustration on Jess from unwarranted work stress.  She says I laugh more at her jokes now.  Whether I've had the time to realize just how funny she is, or if it is the fact that she's sometimes my only adult interaction in a day.  I just feel like I have more time to think about her, and our relationship and what I can and need to do to ensure that she knows that I still love her as much as the same day we got married.  It's not always easy though, and we've had our share of challenging moments of the years.  The key is obviously, like Dr. Phil will tell you, communicating with each other.  As someone once told me, it seems pretty unfair and unrealistic that we can sometimes expect our spouses, or anyone for that matter, to know exactly what we want without needing to communicate it with them.  As helpful as it would be, telepathy is not a power that accompanies a wedding ring.              

When I was younger, I naively thought that true love was something you didn't need to work at.  If that person was right for you that spark should always be there, and should require no work on your behalf to tend the flames.  I've now come to realize that is complete bullshit.  Like anything; your dream job, your relationship with your kids, or your six pack abs, any relationship will always take work, especially your marriage.  There will be good days and bad, and the bad days will hopefully make you appreciate the good days that much more.

I realized that my wife was the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with when I stopped asking myself if she was perfect or if there was someone else better for me out there.  She's not perfect, and neither am I (shocking, I know).  But to paraphrase one of my favorite movies, the important thing is knowing if we are perfect for each other.  I realized that she was perfect for me when I understood that my life was better because she was in.  I could live without her, but I don't want to.  Her love makes my life better.  It makes me a better person, a better spouse and a better dad.  When we first started dating I couldn't imagine I'd be where I am at right now.  Now that I'm here, I can't imagine having gotten here with anyone else.

She knew what she was getting into.